The Bengals got more than expected from the 2011 draft, as A.J. Green and Andy Dalton exceeded expectations. The team is young in a division in which the Ravens and Steelers are aging. Cincinnati made the jump from four wins in 2010 to nine and a playoff berth in 2011.
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After making significant improvements offensively in 2011, the Bengals went defense-heavy in the 2012 draft, adding three potential starters. The midseason trade of disgruntled quarterback Carson Palmer helped reap a pair of premium draft picks, while Dalton asserted himself as the quarterback of the future in his rookie season.
Cincinnati had several key players to replace after opting not to re-sign running back Cedric Benson, wide receiver Jerome Simpson and guard Nate Livings. The biggest signing was running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, expected to be the primary back in an offense that has been run-heavy in recent years. The team addressed defense in free agency, taking on former top-10 draft picks in defensive end Jamaal Anderson, defensive end Derrick Harvey and cornerback Terence Newman.
Geno Atkins was a Pro Bowler in his second NFL season.
The Bengals had arguably the most impressive 2012 draft, meshing need with talent. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is a physical corner who is strong in run support. The team added guard Kevin Zeitler with the 27th pick, filling a significant need. Defensive tackle got an infusion of talent and value with Devon Still in the second round and Brandon Thompson in the third, but the Bengals still found a way to give Dalton additional weapons in wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and tight end Orson Charles. Day 3 was devoted to drafting for depth, and all 10 drafted rookies have a shot to make the final roster.
The Bengals have one of the stranger schedules in the entire NFL. They open the season with three of their first four games on the road, but the payback comes at midseason. After returning from a Sept. 20 road game in Jacksonville, the Bengals don't leave the State of Ohio until they head to Kansas City on Nov. 18. After playing at Baltimore in Week 1, Cincinnati has a chance to do some damage -- its next five opponents all lost 10 or more games last year.
But the schedule comes back with a vengeance late –- the final five games include road games against San Diego, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and homes games against Dallas and Baltimore. If the Bengals are to return to the playoffs, they will likely have to do it by facing playoff-caliber opponents throughout the month of December.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
A.J. Green, wide receiver. Most receivers don't hit their peak until their third season, Green put up monster rookie numbers (65 receptions, 1,057 yards, 7 touchdowns), which bodes well moving forward.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Geno Atkins, defensive tackle. A strong pass rusher and improving run-stuffer, he's a Pro Bowler who makes Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense work.
WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...
They continue the momentum they built in 2011 and significantly improve their 0-4 record against the Steelers and Ravens last season. It will likely take at least 11 victories to win the AFC North crown, so improving their 4-4 home record from 2011 will be a must.